My cousin, Dave Gavula, served in Afghanistan as Infantry Team Leader. He returned in May 2006. Below are his thoughts on the film Restrepo, and a little bit about war in general. My thoughts on the film follow his. I should also note that co-director Tim Hetherington was recently killed on-assignment in Libya. It’s a very tragic loss.
“As a former member of the platoon depicted in the film Restepo, though not in the movie, I have a close personnel relationship with some of the men in the film, and served with many of them on two previous deployments to Iraq and Afghanistan.
It is a shame that it took almost a decade of War for a film like Restrepo to bring to the American people the story of what their soldiers endure. For years journalists have given us a depiction of war that is unrealistic, and has tuned America out to the sacrifice of the few for the many. Retrepo, though set in the Korengal valley of Afghanistan tells the story of the American fighting man as it has been from the first shots of the Revolutionary war. It the life of our nations warriors for the first time seen by the public through their eyes. There is no scholarly narrator, or ideological commentator, or out of context editing, just the daily life of soldiers in combat. I have struggled in my return from war to relate my experiences to those around me, no words can ever convey my experience to them, indeed nothing short of combat can impart the emotions and reality of the situation on a person, but Restrepo at least gives a glimpse to the viewer of what so many have suffered and sacrificed over the generations for a cause greater than self.
The portrayal of warfare in movies has always been theatrical, dramatic, but special effects and even the best acting are no substitute for the reality of war. Restrepo is not simply a documentary that tells a story, it carries with it lessons and messages. Unlike the days of the Greatest Generation when the home front pulled together to sacrifice for the war effort; today the home front is generally unaware of what their countrymen are doing around the world to ensure their way of life.
It is a blessing that Restrpo can bring to the American people an understanding of what life is like for those fighting the war. As you read this, someone’s son, brother, father or husband is out in those mountains, doing unimaginable things in horrific conditions. It is said that ignorance is bliss, and it is true, and once you live through war, it never leaves you. When we come home we want desperately to be understood and to adapt to being back in a “normal” life, but we can never really come back. We know the only way for people to understand would be for them to endure what we have, but at the same time we are glad we are not understood, because that means we are succeeding.
If you take anything away from Restrepo I hope it is an appreciation for what those down range really face. I hope you can see that for the men on the ground fighting every day, the war is to survive, that you fight not for the flag or elected officials, but for the man next to you. Men who will do anything for each other, if only because they know their brothers will do the same for them. I hope people see that soldiers are in circumstances far beyond their control, trying to make the best out of terrible situations, and making decisions quickly under extreme circumstance, little information and in an environment that is one of survival, kill or be killed. It is simple, yet complicated, you worry only about what is vital and nothing more, you must learn to move forward in chaos, fighting instinct and emotion.
Try not to judge these men, what would you do if you were them? What they do is extraordinary, and now that I am home I am thankful every day because I know that men like that are still out there. Remember when you see them that they are still at war, that the fight for them will never end and they will carry their battles with them for the rest of their lives. Know that they have given as much as they could give and more, and love them or hate them they were glad to do it for you, and to serve with the best people they have ever known.”
I watch too few documentaries. Restrepo is a great doc. It’s great for a number of reasons, but I want to comment on a few in particular:
-The editing is phenomenal in here. There isn’t a wasted moment in this film. How many films can say that? Everything serves some greater context. Do you know what a “talking head” is in a film? It’s a part of a documentary where we see the interviewee talking (think 60 minutes). Most documentarians, professors, etc will argue to avoid the talking head. Cut to B-roll (other shots that occur while we still hear the voice of the speaker).
What makes Restrepo so great is its reliance on the talking heads in certain sequences, but without sacrificing drama. In fact, the most dramatic moment of the film is a 5+ minute long sequence of just talking heads. The editing here is fantastic. Hetherington and Junger cut from soldier to soldier as they tell us the story of the most horrific battle they experienced. The editing not only expertly tells a confusing story clearly, but also lays plain their emotions, holding on silences and looks away, and then continuing at a breakneck pace to ratchet up the tension.
-The filmmakers are mostly silent. They don’t intrude. It’s not their place and they know it. This is about the soldiers and they let these moments breathe. Though there are many talking heads, the filmmakers are also smart to capture action without the soldiers addressing the camera.
-Human moments. Some standouts: three soldiers singing a pop song on Christmas. Two soldiers wrestling. These are so poignantly played that they feel almost like fictional character development. I mean this in a good way. We understand these men as much through the humdrum moments as through the action.
-Shattering moments. We’ve been with these soldiers for a long time when one of them, the quietest and gentlest to that point, remarks towards the end, “I just wish I was closer so I could have seen them die.” We don’t condemn him or hate him for the remark. But we are shocked, and maybe more importantly, sad. It’s such a great example of what I would consider to be the real horror of war – the change in this man’s character. It’s an emotionally probing and brutal scene.
-Decisions of what to show and what not to show. Some of the most violent moments are not even onscreen. We are forced to relive them through an intimate retelling only. This technique puts us very close to the war, but not quite in it (at least not yet). It also lets us truly relate to these men, and the distance that the camera provides allows us to examine every detail and twitch on their face as they spill their hearts. It’s emotional, and, though we analyze, not clinical. The aforementioned distance of the camera does not, as is often the case, reduce the subject to lab rats, but instead captures and records their internal emotion.
Restrepo is a great documentary film. Thanks to Dave Gavula for his well-written thoughts!